Monday, March 10, 2008

POTASH PRESENTS: The Stories I Forgot

The best times blur in remembrance; it is the painful ones that have stayed with me. Long days of seeking and not finding; of empty pursuits thrust into perpetuity. Hard, cold nights of catching moonbeams through an ageing roof. Some nights the full moon, hanging low in the sky would turn an eerie shade of red, the wind would blow malevolently against the tin (or the mad and wattle depending on where we lived then) walls and dark clouds creep on the moon; smother her light and loll over the sky an ominous rumble in their wake.

Then it would begin to rain.

To remember it all brings tears to my eyes- these tears do not rain, they pour. In private, in between spotless white linen, I curl myself into a foetal position and let the sheets mop up more fluid than they have from all the trysts they have seen lately. Those are my only moments of truth; times when the uppity conversations in mood lit rooms are done and I have no one to go home to.

In those days, the conversations would have been vulgar- held in coarse tongues over ugali and sukuma wiki (a jug or two of Senator or a jik of Chang'aa as we grew older) but at least there would have been someone to go home to. You would always return to your brothers' drunken snoring as they lay sprawled over the Vono single-bed. Or maybe it was one of your relatives from the village; an old mate from high school. Someone. Sometimes all these people would be all in there, sober and hungry, hurdled over the charcoal brazier telling war stories. Other times there would be nobody and you hoped for the best: that at least they were spending a night at the police station.

The Police station... nyumba ya mawe kizee!

Yes and the police station came with security. Security from our biggest fear: The Police. If you were spending a night at the police station it meant that they had caught you alive. And that, I kid you not, was a rare occurrence. Most important of all, the police station, for those who know its ways, came with a guaranteed breakfast. Scalding tea and a measly slice of bread after a night of cat naps in a crouching position might not seem like much but it was divine compared to the air burger breakfast at home.

In the morning, the OCS (Officer Commanding Station) would put you to work sweeping the police station's compound and send you on your way. They knew those who could be bailed out and those who couldn't. And you knew that they wouldn't bother taking you to court on charges of 'idling' because that was a charge they preferred on those they hoped to extort money from. Money which they knew you didn't have. Set free you returned to the same emptiness- to the constant struggle in search of any means of escape from poverty. In most cases the only means to be found was through cheap drugs and alcohol.

I say these things now because the soft voice that has been whispering in my year for over a year has turned into a yell. When I started this blog, it was because of two things. First I knew I had a story to tell. I did not know how well to tell stories, as I do now, but I had more stories then than now. But stories do not go away, they live in our hearts but the desire to rewrite history and escape its lowest moments thrusts us into the murky depths of forgetfulness.

The story I wanted to tell was that of a mid twenties Kenyan guy trying to afford his next shot of moonshine; his urban escape vehicle. About the realities of a life of fruitless striving and the ways we tried to escape it. It was about how life was and still is in that small theatre of broken dreams that is our end of Nairobi. The story of an urban space and a people who only live in NGO statistics and the dispatches of foreign correspondents. I wanted to imbue this space with character, take away the jaded and callous ways real people were constantly reduced to objects to which a subject (war, hunger and pestilence) and a verb were added to complete that 'balanced' news story. I meant to take away the emasculation of a people through turning them into data that fit well into a pie chart in a funding proposal. I desired to translate the lived experience into the written word. Maybe in the process of transferring life into words, I would be discovered as a writer.

The being discovered as a writer was the second reason I started doing this blog. These days they call me a writer. But how can I be an accomplished writer while the story that made me languishes in oblivion? Without the Kenyan Urban Narrative, I am incomplete.

I write these words now because, lately, I have been thinking about truth and forgetfulness. The written word has been for centuries, now, the most efficient way of documenting and preserving truths. Books, nay, written words have an element of permanence, they immortalise the author and grow the database of the record of a human existence. Our existence. What is written now affects what we think tomorrow. Yet all that is written today is not of necessity true. And some of those falsehoods are peddled purposely. The purpose is never, out rightly, to deceive but merely to add drama to mundane experiences.

Mainly, I am talking about the Memoir here. It is amazing how many autobiographies are being called to question in recent times. Forget about the blatant inventions of Margaret Seltzer aka Margaret B. Jones in Love and Consequences, Misha Defonseca in Misha: A Memoire of The Holocaust Years, the Oprah-Bubble-Busting James Frey and the like but the accusations of embellishment and anachronism in say Ishmael Beah's A long Way Gone. If such accusations can be true, can these narratives be seen to have been ruined by a desire in the publishing world to publish what is sensational, if badly told, rather than what is mundane yet well and truthfully narrated? Are readers more interested in the humanity of their subject or in their celebrity, infamy and vileness? Are stories of every day, forgotten people remarkable out of once-in-a-while news features?

Can the Kenyan Urban Narrative be told for and as what it is- a lived experience- and continue to appeal to its audience and the world that does not know the story?

Most important of all, how much can its author remember? How much of story is there without the detail? Is the accuracy of time vis a vis incident relevant or is placing real incidents in wrong times a misrepresentation of fact enough to push the narrative into the realm of fiction?

Such have been my thoughts for long days. I have many answers from the ethical to the philosophical but what I have realised is that those answers are not necessary or in anyway related to what I set out to do. Not, at least, in the most fundamental of ways which is whether or not this blog can give voice to a disenfranchised majority. To my own self, then, I shall be true and return to the neighbourhood. Shed this ridiculous pandering for literary greatness that is lived more in association that in works published.

I am slipping out of the writers' network that has taken me into its bourgeoisie embrace. Now, I will jump back into the murky depths of Nairobi under-privilege where this writing business all begun. I seek to and hope to return to those days of striving and not finding. Return even in metaphorical ways: through memory and lucid dreams. I want to go back to those days, when the writing was cathartic. To that place where words were the best way to escape that low moment when the alcohol and drug buzz is worn out and you know not where your next high is coming from. I am going back to a time when I wrote and wrote, grinding pencil lead to a pulp and wearing out exercise book after exercise book right through to the margins just to still the demons and wait out the unpredictable, yet much hoped for, arrival of a psychotropic escape route from despondency.

I am going back to the Kenyan Urban Narrative. At least to the most of it that I can still remember.


Anonymous said...

I guess congratulations are in order - at least on some level - as you continue on your journey.

mwari said...

Well written post!

Funny... that we take in something from what we read, and it affects how we think/behave least in the short term. In the long run, perhaps we become what we read? just a thought...

31337t said...

Taking it back to the streets eh? I like, is Potash back, for real this time?

Anonymous said...

So you are moving out of the fancy pants apartment in the sky? Alas..

Anonymous said...

....Most important of all, how much can its author remember? How much of story is there without the detail? Is the accuracy of time vis a vis incident relevant or is placing real incidents in wrong times a misrepresentation of fact enough to push the narrative into the realm of fiction?....

I don't think the "wrong" time in a narrative can be thaaat far off from the "real" time to push it into fiction! I think the importance is that the narrative is true... well I guess except the incorrect time it has been placed which can be as simple a mistake as a typo! Just my 2 cents.
This was a good read, a touching read, I will read again and again for it is more about LIFE!
gracias amigo!